ANDREW CROWTHER: This is the opera where we find Gilbert at his most Gilbertian. Parody, cynicism, irony, mechanical plot-reverses (including the brilliantly paradoxical ending) - it's all here.
The parody of old-fashioned melodrama in Ruddigore is brilliantly directed against the moral assumptions behind such melodrama. Gilbert notices that the heroine of melodrama is not so much virtuous as priggishly good-mannered, so he gives Rose that book of etiquette. The Jolly Jack Tar with his breezy code of following his heart's dictates raises Gilbert's hackles, for after all what does that mean but doing exactly what you want?
Robin/Ruthven is good or bad according to the dictates of the situation or simply who's just been talking to him: he is astonishingly weak-willed, and we're led to think that this is Gilbert's judgement on melodramatic "heroes" in general. (He doesn't make much of another well-known characteristic of the heroes and heroines of melodrama - their chronic stupidity. The ease with which heroines are trapped by the black-hearted villain is enough to make a fellow despair of humanity.)
One of the main points in this opera is to show that the easy moral absolutes of melodrama are worthless. Good becomes bad, bad becomes good: "Ten minutes since my heart said 'white' - It now says 'black'." In the late Victorian era people were slowly coming to realise that Darwin and other people impertinently seeking truth had undermined literal belief in the Judaeo-Christian creeds. And without this religious foundation, morality itself begins to totter. Nothing was quite as certain as it had been fifty years before. And we can see Gilbert reflecting this in Ruddigore.
(I must remind myself that Ruddigore is, in addition, brilliantly witty, well-written, and even on occasion moving.)
PETER ZAVON: While it is obviously fun for many of us to inquire into the motivations of the various characters (As in our discussion of Yeomen) there are times when doing so is unnecessarily complicating the situation. This is one of those times.
Ruddigore is a satire on melodramas. Melodramas used stereotyped characters, at least those that WSG wanted to make fun of, did so. Gilbert is advancing his satire by having the characters respond rigidly according to their stereotypes. Despard is good in the second act, so he urges Ruthven to return to goodness - because that is what the stereotype does. That is the core of Gilbert's humour relating to Despard, Robin/Ruthven and the curse.
There is no depth of character here, because that is the nature of a stereotyped character - and that is what Gilbert is making fun of.
This is, after all, another variation on Gilbert's losenge plot. Trying to dig deeper ignores and destroys the essential humour he has set up.
ARTHUR ROBINSON: This may not qualify as in the "canon," but Gilbert's 1871 musical play A Sensation Novel, which is similar to Ruddigore in other ways, is another example. In this play, the stock characters of a melodramatic novel - the "hero" is an insipid Sunday school teacher, the "heroine" a virtuous governess, the "villain" a wicked baronet named Sir Ruthven, the "villainess" a seductive killer - have quite different personalities "outside" the novel. The "heroine" longs to be abducted by the "villain," who is a mild, timid sort; the "hero" is attracted to the "villainess," and loathes the "heroine" as much as she hates him. (There's more to this - I recommend those who haven't read the play to do so [it's in Jane Stedman's edition Gilbert Before Sullivan - it's much funnier than I can make it sound!)
ANDREW CROWTHER: One associated question occurs to me. Do people still understand the conventions of melodrama enough to get the point of the parody? Of course we all know about the villain with his big black cloak and his "Ha ha"s; but what about the benignly dense hero and heroine, and the horribly hearty Jolly Jack Tar? Personally, I'd be inclined to go all out to play for these stereotypes, like a toy theatre melodrama gone warped; but maybe the audience wouldn't get what I was doing.
I've read of productions which trade on the nearest equivalent to melodrama that a modern audience might recognise: horror of the Dracula/Frankenstein type. Myself, I don't think the Transylvanian look suits Cornwall; but maybe it has to be done.
MICHAEL NASH: I think if played to the hilt, with all the characters being as stereotypical as possible, it comes across even to a modern audience. The only exceptions to this I feel are Dame Hannah and Sir Roderic, right at the end when they sing "There Grew A Little Flower". At this point, the masks slip and we see two real human beings (albeit one deceased), feeling real pain. I don't think this song is a low point in the opera at all - it should be played straight, and as Andrew says, can be very moving.
As for playing it as a modern Hammer horror thing, I don't think this works as not enough of the plot of the opera is relevant. The "horror" element of the story is basically the appearance of the ghosts, which doesn't happen until fifteen minutes into Act 2. Act 1 is really about the love triangle between Robin, Rose and Richard, with only hints at anything darker: Sir Despard makes an appearance but doesn't really do anything until the finale of Act 1, when he confronts Robin; meanwhile Robin reveals to the audience early on that he is really the Baronet of Ruddigore, but again, nothing happens regarding this fact until the Act 1 finale.
If we wanted to do a Dracula/Frankenstein Ruddigore, the plot would need to be re-shaped, placing the supernatural elements much more at the centre. The men's chorus would be the ghosts throughout, and the story would presumably concern itself with the living characters battling against the ghosts (led by Sir Roderic) to carry on living good lives and to defeat the forces of darkness. Only at the end, when Sir Roderic meets Dame Hannah, would he relent.
GERRY HOWE: This is very much parodied Victorian melodrama, whose ancestors are the "gothic" tale (e. g. Matthew 'Monk' Lewis) and the straightforward (Wilkie Collins, Sheridan LeFAnu et al) ghost story. The "Hammer" type of horror movie came much later, starting with the Boris Karloff Frankenstein. In its own right, an enjoyable genre, but not the same thing.
DIANA BURLEIGH: The best lead I've ever had on Ruddigore came from an article by Phyllis Karr who wrote of the religiosity of the work which she suggested was the real reason that it was booed on opening night. The biblical language, the reference to a national school (read Sunday school), the constant reliance on the guidance of a book (aka the bible) and so on. It led me to think a lot about the work and decide it should be played as a gothic-horror show and that influenced my production of some years back. It is a struggle between good and evil and this solves the problem that some people see in the change of style between the 2 acts. Act 1 is the idyllic rustic village and act 2 the evil castle which must be exorcised of its wickedness, represented by the ghosts.
Of course, being Gilbert, the evil is not very evil and has weakened itself by having the supernatural beings as tender hearted as the Pirates and as little inclined to action as the police in another opera! I had great fun directing it this way and the audience loved it - probably more than I did, because of course all I saw were the inadequacies. Looking back there are a few things I'd do differently but I would keep the same basic style. I would also insist on doing Ruddygore with the original ending.
Page created 4 October 1997